In my mind I was still the gross, lazy, unfixable kid. But in the tiny empowerment bubble of a women's college, there were a host of new narratives I hadn't considered. I discovered books, articles, and indie zines offering strange new ideas: that fat people could be happy and healthy and even loved, that we weren't necessarily damaged, that beauty ideals controlled women by making them waste their energy on hating themselves. That the desire to eat food was sometimes just the body's way of taking care of itself. The old narrative—in which I would remain trapped in a loathsome body until I earned love and happiness through slimness—started to fade.
Sophomore year, Mom wrote an article tut-tutting about how the people on campus who told me to "honor my hunger" were only ruining my diet. I ran a campuswide campaign for Love Your Body Day and asked Mom to quit writing about me.
And eventually I started to write. Books, magazines, and literature on campus had planted the suspicion that there was a less painful way to live, and when I rediscovered these ideas in the blogosphere, I found myself repeating and reformulating them. In communicating with others, I started convincing myself.
Along the way, I retooled my vocabulary. Fat, the word I'd scrawled accusingly in marker on my offending thighs in high school, was just a neutral way of describing a body; if there's nothing inherently shameful in fatness, there's no reason to hide behind euphemisms. And the word health, so often used as a club to beat fat people with, needed redefining, too. There's nothing healthy about fearing food and using exercise as a whip. A better goal is to exercise for fun and truly eat well—not less, not using different rules, but in a way that's more nourishing and more conscious. By my mid-20s, I was not only eating more normally—I had added new kinds of exercise to my routine for the sheer fun of it: belly dance, yoga, hula hooping. My weight stayed the same, but I started to really live in the body I was now feeding and taking out to play. I realized I wasn't trapped in the old cycle of failure, denial, and shame.
These days I can write about my body—and even, cautiously, let my mother write about it—because I've jettisoned the old narratives and started to scratch out a new one. It's a complicated story, with an unpredictable plot—good days, bad days, a pervasive sense of shame that's hard to shake. But I'm finding that the main character is much more healthy, stable, and worthwhile than I'd ever known.
Jess Zimmerman is a journalist who lives near Washington, D.C.
From the December 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.